Impressions: A campus for the community

<p>Nancy McCarthy</p>

It’s amazing what people want in a school nowadays.

You would think they would list spacious classrooms, computer stations or – in these days – a building where kids can be safe from intruders.

But in attending the three forums held by the Seaside School District recently, I was surprised by the public’s priorities.

Because four of the five schools in the district are in a tsunami zone and all of the schools stand a great chance of collapsing in a nearby earthquake, district Superintendent Doug Dougherty is planning to move the schools to the hills east of Seaside.

His quest in conducting the public forums was to find out what people expected the new campus to include.

To get their opinions, members of the architectural firm, Dull Olson Weekes Architects, of Portland, who are designing the new school, asked those attending the forums to gather in small groups. Then they gave the groups three scenarios to ponder: If they were students, staff members or members of the public, what would they want in their school?

The forum participants wrote their ideas on cards, and those cards were posted on the wall.

Then everyone was given red dots to stick on their favorite suggestions.

Oh sure, some dots were put on “flexible classrooms” and “bathrooms in classrooms for younger children” and “access to technology.”

But the No. 1 priority that came out of all three meetings – in Cannon Beach, at Broadway Middle School and in Gearhart – was a performing arts center.

Who knew the kids were so stage-struck?

If it had been up to me, I would have considered the reason the schools were moving in the first place. I would have gone with a “safe structure” and one that could be turned into an emergency shelter, capable of holding hundreds of people for many months.

Maybe I would think like that because I listened to stories told by the principal from Kesennuma Junior High School in Tohoku, Japan. As the tsunami of March 11, 2011 subsided, more than 800 people had crowded into the school, built for 345 students.

There they stayed, for nearly six months, with 40 people to a classroom, sleeping on futons and crowding around kerosene stoves while it snowed outside.

But, maybe those attending the forums had taken it for granted that Dougherty and the architects were already planning the shelter. And, indeed they are, but don’t they need some encouragement from those who might be living there in an emergency?

In the Gearhart forum, the suggestion for a shelter received only one red dot. Another suggestion for a “safe evacuation site” received no dots.

But the performing arts center came out on top, with a dozen dots. Other priorities included covered outdoor play areas, natural light (also a popular choice), access to technology and energy-efficient buildings.

The results were similar in the other forums. In addition, participants mentioned school health clinics, community gardens, a school commons for students, a central drop-off point for students and visitors and after-school and weekend recreational programs for students and the community.

Some said they wanted a “secure” campus, but not one that resembled a prison.

Something tells me this new campus, with classes ranging from kindergarten through high school, is going way beyond the one-room schoolhouse.

What participants seemed to be saying was that they want a community center where education also takes place.

It will be a big change for the school district, where most of the buildings are 55 to 65 years old and in drastic need of repair. The new buildings will reflect new philosophies in education – as well as construction practices -- since those schools were constructed.

It’s exciting to consider what the new campus will look like and what role it will play in residents’ lives.

I tried to envision the scene as I attended the forums, but that vision shifted with each suggestion posted on the wall. Here’s a school clinic; there’s a central drop-off point; over there are sports fields with a nearby gym and fitness room; the big library is next to the vocational career center; and along here are flexible classrooms with lots of storage, the latest technology and windows providing plenty of natural light.

You see those kids over there? They’re planting seeds in the community garden.

And, somewhere, on that 50-acre site east of the old Seaside Heights Elementary School, there’s a place where emergency supplies are stored and ready.

Because not only will the new campus become a center for the community to gather for performances, recreation and education, it will be a place where the community seeks shelter in the storm of all storms.

Nancy McCarthy edits the Seaside Signal, Cannon Beach Gazette and covers South Clatsop County for The Daily Astorian. Her column appears every other week.

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